oil on panel
As a follower of the Ashcan school, Reginald Marsh was among the artists whose depictions of New York at the turn of the century challenged the conventions of contemporary American painting. In their unsentimental portrayals of contemporary life in New York, the Ashcan artists captured the full range of urban existence from the gritty realities of tenement living to the upper class enclaves along Fifth Avenue. A rapid and prolific draughtsman, Marsh carried a sketchbook with him at all times in which he recorded the city's constant bustle of human activity. He was particularly captivated by burlesque houses, and their downtrodden clientele.
Painted in 1945, Burlesque depicts a solitary dancer on the stage of the Hudson Burlesk House in Union City, New Jersey. Men cloaked in shadows leer at the scantily clad dancer, in bright shades of pink, highlighted on the stage. Artists such as Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt had popularized the theater, and subsequent role of the view as spectator/voyeur, at the end of the 19th century with their elegant depictions of the opera and ballet. Members of the Ashcan School, including Marsh and Everett Shinn among others, appropriated this theater motif for their depictions of New York during the first half of the 20th century. Edward Hopper, a close friend of Reginald Marsh's, also visited this theme in Girlie Show (1941, Private Collection). Carol Troyen writes, "Reginald Marsh, who frequented burlesque houses both as a patron and in search of material, made sexual display and the attendant environment the focus of his art. Marsh's burlesque queens from the 1930s and '40s are usually depicted as attractive, confident women. He portrayed them as goddesses, frequently in poses derived from classical statuary....[In works such as Burlesque], The curvaceous blond stripper saluting her audience is half Jean Harlow, half Venus Pudica—which makes her seem all the more commanding in comparison with a sea of joyless males at her feet. This contrast between larger-than-life alluring women and pathetic, ineffectual men—may have had roots in Marsh's own insecurities but also mirrored the complexities of sexual relations in the 1930s. 'In Marsh's world, only women work, but in occupations in which the sole qualification is their sexuality...[Marsh's] women radiate sexual experience'" (Carol Troyen, "Hopper's Women," Edward Hopper, Boston, Massachusetts, 2007).
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